Monday, December 14, 2015

“If you build it, they will come”
The story of the inaugural 'Bad Boy Indy Invitational' midget/outlaw kart race

While "if you build it, they will come” is not exactly the line uttered by the characters in the baseball-themed film Field of Dreams, it was true on Saturday night December 12 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. A group of young promoters, Cody Sommer, Jeremy Burnett, and Tommy Baldwin III, pulled off the impossible and staged an indoor dirt race, the historic inaugural 'Bad Boy Indy Invitational.'

Cody Sommer grew up around Kewanee Illinois, raced a bit himself, and after a year of community college, moved to North Carolina to get a job in auto racing. He bounced around from team to team and eventually wound up at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing where he was laid off after the economic slump of 2008. 

Cody became an entrepreneur, and built up his business, Stout Brewing Company, which makes and sells alcoholic beverages. Sommer never forgot about racing, as he promoted the “Carolina Crown” a $30,000 to win Super Late Model race in 2012 and 2013. Sommer’s partner, Jeremy Burnett and his wife Ashly own and promote the 1/6-mile Millbridge Speedway near Salisbury North Carolina which features weekly outlaw kart racing.

Sommer and the Burnetts convinced the managers of Bankers Life Fieldhouse to allow them to stage an indoor midget car and outlaw kart racing event in a luxury venue in downtown Indianapolis. The date they selected was ideal, on the final night of the prestigous Performance Racing Industries 'PRI 2015' trade show, which was held just down the street at the Indianapolis Convention Center. The team then lined up a title sponsor, Bad Boy Buggies, and an impressive list of associate sponsors.

When the 'Bad Boy Indy Invitational' race was announced, there were many nay-sayers on social media that claimed that the race would never happen. The invitations to the 40 outlaw kart and 40 midget drivers were offered through the social media platform Twitter using the handle “Indy Indoors” and though there was some controversy over which drivers garnered invitations, and a few substitutions, a couple of weeks before the race, the field was set.

The most daunting task for the promoters was to build the race track in 16 hours. On Friday night, December 11, the NBA  Indianapolis Pacers, the regular tenants of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, defeated the visiting Miami Heat basketball team by a final score of 96-83.  The Indy Indoors construction team was able to begin work inside the venue at midnight and at 2 AM the 800 feet of fabricated sheet steel outer wall and chain link fencing arrived and was installed. At 4 AM the first of 50 truckloads of dirt arrived, and when the author arrived just after 11 AM on Saturday, all the dirt was in place on the floor of the fieldhouse to a uniform depth of 8 inches and the approximately 1/10-mile long track was being shaped compacted and groomed.  

The drivers meeting and press conference was held in the IMS Pavilion inside the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The pre-race press conference was combined with the drivers meeting and introduced the officiating team, Kenny Brown and his staff from the POWRi midget series would work the race track, while Mike Hess of the World of Outlaws sprint car series served as the Race Director. The scheduled format for both classes was unique - hot laps also served as time trials with the driver with the fastest lap time automatically seeded into the feature. Hot laps were followed by five 10-lap heat races, with the top two finishers in each heat advancing into the feature.

The winners of the heat races would meet in a 6-lap winners dash to set the front three rows of the field, while the top three finishers in the two last chance races to advance to the feature. The two fourth place finishers were then scheduled to return to the track for a three-lap head to head to set the final starting positions for the 40-lap features races.  The outlaw kart feature winner’s purse was set at $5000, while the midget winner’s purse was announced as $10,000. 

A view of the track and a portion of the crowd.

With no press facilities provided, thankfully the author had the foresight to purchase a ticket for $45 lower section seat from which to view the racing program. Hot laps started shortly after the scheduled start of 4 PM, but were not completed until 6 PM which foreshadowed events to follow.  Once the racing program began, chaos reigned. 

The five outlaw kart heat races took over an hour to complete, but seemed even longer with a seemingly endless numbers of spins and crashes, and quite frankly by the end of the heat races, the infield POWRi track crew looked exhausted. The midget heat races ran a bit smoother, but not without problems and also took far too long to complete from this reporter's perspective.

This type of multi-car tangle off turn two 
was unfortunately all too frequent

2014 POWRi National Rookie of the Year Spencer Bayston won the first heat, 2015 POWRi West series champion Anton Hernandez won the second heat race, and 2015 POWRi National Series Rookie of the Year Kyle Schuett took the win in the third heat. 

A problem arose towards the end of the fourth heat race, when the red flag flew unexpectedly, which was later explained to the crowd as having been shown on orders from the Fire Marshal due to hazardous levels of pollution inside the Fieldhouse. A lengthy nearly hour long delay ensued before the final laps of the fourth heat were run with NASCAR star Kyle Larson, who was also entered in an outlaw kart the winner.

The fifth and final midget car heat race was won by World of Outlaw regular Joey Saldana, followed by 2014 USAC National Sprint Car champion Brady Bacon and 2015 USAC/CRA Sprint Car champion Damion Gardner in third.   Chris Windom, the “people’s champ,” Dave Darland and Chris Gehrke were the top three finishers in the first midget last chance race, while Parker Price-Miller, Danny Stratton, and Alex Bright advanced from the second midget last chance race.

Mike Wheeler claimed the outlaw kart "Golden Wheel" trophy
and a check for $5000

By the time the outlaw kart feature field was introduced and pushed off, it was nearing midnight and it was announced over the public address system that the race length was now to be 30 laps.  Mike Wheeler of Central Point, Oregon led all thirty laps from the pole position in his RFC Karts/Oregon Outlaw Speed Shop #1W to claim the victory.

Kyle Schuett won the midget 'Golden Wheel" trophy
and a check for $10,000

After a touching video tribute to grand marshal Kevin Swindell, who is still recovering from serious injuries suffered in a crash at the Knoxville Nationals was shown on the Fieldhouse video screens, the drivers in the 19 midgets for the feature were introduced to the crowd and pushed off. Unfortunately, at approximately 12:50 AM with approximately nine laps of the 30 lap distance were completed, the red flag again flew for air quality issues, and the author had to leave.

The midget race was reportedly completed at 1:41 AM won by pole winner Kyle Schuett in his family-owned #9K machine, followed by Spencer Bayston in the Clauson Racing midget. The work was not over for the Indy Indoors team, for immediately after the races ended, the crew had to peel up, load and haul out the dirt track, take down the wall and fencing, and clean up the massive amount of dust inside the Fieldhouse in time for the Indiana Pacers home game at 7 PM on Monday night, which the Pacers won by the score of 106-90 over the Toronto Raptors.  

There has been much criticism of the event posted on social media - admittedly the racing itself was frustrating to watch, took much too long, and the venue had its problems, particularly with dust and the aforementioned air quality. The promoters, Cody Sommer and Jeremy Burnett, deserve a lot credit and a big “thank you” from the midget racing community for simply achieving what many social media “experts” claimed would never happen. 

The inaugural 'Bad Boy Indy Invitational' was very well attended by fans and drew 40 midgets for a one-night show, while the prestigious Turkey Night Grand Prix held last month drew a small crowd and only 22 entries. Cody Sommer stated during the press conference held before the race that he had already taken pages of notes for items that needed improvements. The author hopes that the promoters learned some lessons about the number of cars entered in the program, track configuration and maintenance, and the building ventilation requirements that will be implemented for their second annual race.   

Photographs by the author

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